Kashmir conflict drives tourists away

Shikara and houseboat operators in Dal Lake say they used to earn $24 to $30 a day, but now, they often earn nothing .”My hotel had zero occupancy last year, and almost all hotels across the valley suffered like this. It was disastrous,” Pahalgam hotelier Mushtaq Ahmad told Al Jazeera .

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – A recent snowfall in the upper reaches of Indian-administered Kashmir came after months of drought.

Mountaintops in the valley these days are mesmerising, covered with snow. An early snowfall would normally be a blessing for the local tourism sector, especially in famous winter resort areas, such as Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg. Yet these places appear desolate, with very few tourists around.

Tourism is a key sector of Kashmir’s economy. According to local tourism officials, a single visiting tourist typically spends around $775. In 2016, nearly 1.3 million tourists came to the valley, but the tourism department had expected 1.8 million. Last year alone, the industry reportedly lost more than $46m.

Autumn in Kashmir is breathtaking, with the region’s famous chinar trees changing colour from green to crimson and gold. The famous Mughal gardens draw tourists from India and around the globe.

But the decline of this industry come amid the valley’s fragile security situation: Last year, five months of clashes ensued after the July killing of local rebel commander Burhaan Wani. The security situation deteriorated further after the killing of political workers and police officers by rebel fighters.

Battling rebel fighters
An increase in operations against rebels in Kashmir is among the reasons for the decline in visitor numbers, according to local tourism officials.

In June, security forces launched “Operation All-Out” to destroy the fighters’ hideouts in the valley. Lieutenant General JS Sandhu, head of the Indian Army’s local command XV Corps, said they have killed an estimated 190 fighters this year.

Kashmir is in dispute between two neighbouring countries, India and Pakistan. Both govern two separate parts but claim Kashmir in full.

Kashmir is one of the world’s most beautiful places, and it used to attract about two million tourists a year. Visitor numbers fell to less than one percent of that in the early 1990s, after the eruption of a Muslim separatist revolt against Indian rule. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

According to Kashmir’s director of tourism, Mehmood Ahmad Shah, negative media portrayals of the region have been among the reasons for declining visitor numbers.

“Media gives hype to very trivial issues of the valley, which has created a negative perception about Kashmir in the rest of India,” Shah told Al Jazeera.

Autumn in Kashmir is breathtaking, with the region’s famous chinar trees changing colour from green to crimson and gold [Sameer Mushtaq/Al Jazeera] Tourism officials have tried to revive the industry by staging concerts and releasing video advertisements to promote the valley. One five-minute video, titled “The Warmest Place on Earth”, went viral on social media, gaining more than 3.7 million views. The short film aimed to counter the negative portrayal of Kashmiris in India’s national media and to show their warm hospitality.

“We have got an overwhelming response for the video, and we will carry it forward by advertising campaigns in print and electronic media to make outsiders realise that the situation is not that bad in Kashmir as portrayed in national media,” Ahmad said.

Many young Kashmiris who work in the tourism industry have recently lost their jobs or switched to other businesses.

Javeed Ahmad, who cares for a family of five, says he had to close down his shop in Pahalgam due to the absence of tourists.

“I had no other option but to shut down my shop to find some better option of livelihood. My family has suffered, especially my children, as I am unable to pay their school fees,” he told Al Jazeera.

Abdul Majeed, the president of the local Hotel and Restaurant Association, told Al Jazeera that many families associated with tourism “have suffered a lot”, citing near-zero occupancy in hotels across the valley.

“Even famous tourist places, like Gulmarg and Pahalgam, which used to remain packed in autumn and winter, have no occupancy at all,” Majeed said, blaming national media for spreading negativity about Kashmir. “People outside the valley should realise that Kashmiris are welcoming them wholeheartedly, no matter what.”

Dal Lake in the capital Srinagar is a key attraction for visitors to Kashmir. The Mughal gardens, Nishat and Shalimar, are situated on its banks.

Tourists to Kashmir typically visit Dal Lake to enjoy a stay in a houseboat or take a ride on a shikara, a wooden boat used to transport tourists. Visitors used to flock to these boats, but these days, few can be seen, leaving the people who depend on Dal Lake for their livelihood disappointed.

“Dal used to remain fully occupied in autumn season. We would take 10 to 15 rides of tourists on a daily basis in our shikaras, but now, we occasionally ferry tourists, maybe one ride in a week,” shikara owner Suhail Ali told Al Jazeera.

Shikara and houseboat operators in Dal Lake say they used to earn $24 to $30 a day, but now, they often earn nothing.

“There used to be around 50 to 60 shikaras from a single ghat [bank] in Dal Lake, but now very few are there, waiting for visitors to come,” Ali said.